The Gospel of Details

Continuing with my self-imposed Mystery 101 course with Prof. Chesterton, I’ve been reading and re-reading many of his stories, and what amazes me is the sheer amount of detail, much of which is essential to the solution of the mystery. I’m also charmed with his formatting—a mediocre mystery, I realize, is one that simply keeps dropping clues until the climax, or resolution, is finally reached at the end. Chesterton, on the other hand uses all kinds of plot devices and distractions and never really follows a straight line from A to Z. Sometimes the culprit is revealed well before the end, and we’re left pondering the mystery of how it was all achieved. Without the many voluminous details he gives us—some of which are unimportant but others crucial in figuring out the solution, this kind of ziggy-zag plotting would never really work.

Now I certainly think Chesterton is an acquired taste, especially these days. Some readers (like myself) happily wallow in myriad details, storing them and sorting them all out as we go along; but others find them tedious or overwhelming. It’s a lot like decorating a house: Some of us are minimalists, others of us want to cover every inch of wall space. But most of us, I think, fall somewhere in the middle, which is what I’m aiming for in my mystery novel.

Details are an important tool for a mystery writer, and perform several different functions. The first, as I mentioned, helps flesh out the plot and give credence to the solution (“Oh yeah, that dark stain on the library floor…”). Details, particularly physical detail about a person’s appearance, are also a kind of shorthand, so instead of writing paragraphs full of description, you can just use a few strong details, concentrating on what is most noteworthy about the person: Is he missing an eye? Is she quick to anger, or wearing too much makeup? That sort of thing, and let the reader judge from there. And lastly, detail adds authenticity, real-ness, but it has to be presented in a unique, not boring and hackneyed way, i.e., “He had deep blue eyes,” or “She wore a red felt hat.” They are like little points of light, or illumination. Not all of it has to relate to the conclusion of the story, but some of the details must.

This is all what I call tapestry writing, and maybe mysteries make the most vivid tapestries of all. Like the Bayeux Tapestry, you have to look close at all the little scenes and people, and then step back to appreciate the work as a whole. So this should give you some clue as to where I’m going with my own book. I may be writing to market, in an established genre that won’t be considered literary. But I’m not writing anymore for attention, reputation and acclaim, but just for fun—and to keep the arteries in my brain from shutting down!

2 thoughts on “The Gospel of Details

  1. I, like you, re-read the Father Brown stories recently, largely because I wanted to see how closely the BBC series followed them. To my surprise, the only similarity is the name and profession of the major character and the occasional appearance of the French thief/detective Flambeau. Don’t get me wrong – I like the series but its closer to an Agatha Christie Miss Marple story than to the original. Am I disappointed? Did I want to see more of how Father Brown analyzed the situations he found himself in (most of which are not in his home parish – you can’t kill off everyone in a small town!) – yes, I am. Why is a Roman Catholic priest living in a largely Protestant country better able to solve a mystery than, say, a minister from the Church of England? Father Brown hears confessions and gets people to tell him things they will not tell the police. But is that all that different from “Grantchester”, the BBC series based on novellas written about a young C of E priest, who also has people confess to him, but which uses his conflicting feelings about justice as defined by the church and justice as defined by the law as an on-going plot device? So you don’t know if he is going to shield someone or turn him/her in!

    Now you have me analyzing other mystery writers – I have to do some more re-reading . . .


    1. Fran, I just started watching the original Father Brown series (from 1974–found it at Morris County Library!) and it is quite different from the newer series and based on actual Chesterton stories. I’m not so fond of the new series but I think Mark Williams is a truer version of Fr. Brown himself.


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